February 16, 2015

On Their Games Again

It sure seems like it's been a while since this weekend's champions have held a trophy over their heads -- for some it's been just a month or so, for others several years, but if any of them can keep their momentum going, it could mean big things for the rest of their years.

Stan Wawrinka began the 2015 season almost the way he did the last one, picking up another crown in Chennai and rolling through his first couple matches at the Australian Open. But when he fell short of repeating his title run, he took a few steps back down the rankings. He was the fourth seed last week in Rotterdam and had trouble getting his footing, losing sets to wildcard Jesse Huta Galung and Guillermo Garcia Lopez, ultimately reaching the final by the skin of his teeth. Against defending champion Tomas Berdych on Sunday he was tested again, dropping the opening set, but he was able to rally from the deficit and clinched the win in just under two hours. It may not be as high profile a trophy as the one he gave up, but with two top ten wins this week, both over higher seeds, he might have put himself back on track to go after the big ones again.

After a similarly stunning 2014, Andrea Petkovic has had a little big more trouble getting her footing this year. A semifinalist at Roland Garros she finished off the season with a title at the Tournament of Champions, but went oh-and-three to start 2015, losing each time to players outside the top fifty. She started to get things back together during Fed Cup play, though, avenging a loss to Jarmila Gajdosova in Sydney and knocking out Sam Stosur in a 12-10 third set marathon. She continued her win streak in Antwerp last week, drubbing one-time Aussie runner-up Dominika Cibulkova and following it up with a win over always tricky Barbora Zahlavova Strycova to make the final. She was spared a contest on Sunday, though, when fifth seeded Carla Suarez Navarro pulled out of the match with a neck injury, but Petko's run was nonetheless impressive. She'll get right back to work this week in Dubai, and hopefully she'll keep her run going -- just a hair away from her career high ranking from three years ago, it's starting to feel like she can make a big push even higher this time around.

Kei Nishikori is certainly making a case for himself to keep climbing as well. Currently at his peak #5 in the world, the man from Japan is coming off a year that brought him four trophies, ten top-ten victories and his first Grand Slam final. He hasn't had bad results in 2015 by any means, but the semis in Brisbane and the quarterfinals in Melbourne don't seem quite as impressive now that we've seen what he can do. So this past week in Memphis, the two-time defending champion was under a little pressure. Qualifiers Ryan Harrison and Austin Krajicek both took sets off the top seed and even a reinvigorated Sam Querrey, who'd scored an impressive win over John Isner in the quarters, was able to push him to a decider. But Kei got his groove back in the final against big-serving Kevin Anderson, withstanding twelve aces from the South African to nab his third consecutive title in Tennessee in straight sets. And hopefully he'll be able to raise his game again when he faces even tougher opponents down the road.

Uruguay's Pablo Cuevas has already proven he can turn up the heat when the pressure's on. The twenty-nine year old veteran had never cracked the top forty before last year, but then went on a solid run over the summer picking up titles in Umag and Bastad, the first two finals he'd ever contested. He finished off the season with a couple of Challengers wins and ended the year at a career high #32 in the world. After a slow start to the year though -- his only win in January came over a still-recovering Nicolas Almagro -- he pulled things together this past week in Sao Paulo. Seeded fifth at the Brazil Open, he took out the Spaniard again and added wins over upstart Jiri Vesely and world #31 Santiago Giraldo to his resum&eactue;. Yesterday against unknown qualifier Luca Vanni -- who incidentally jumped forty-one spots up the rankings thanks to his Cinderella run -- he held tough in three tight sets, notching the win in a tiebreak and keeping his record in finals a spotless 3-0. He's headed straight to Rio this week and face Almagro yet again in his opener, but having backed up his most recent win with an ultimate title, he may just have established himself as a real favorite this time.

Veteran Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova is trying to work her way back to that favored status, too. The one-time world #4 has had a rough couple of years, and in 2014 fell well out of seeding territory at the Majors. She showed some signs of progress to start this season, scoring a win over Sara Errani in Auckland and pushing Garbiñe Muguruza to a third set in Melbourne. Still almost two years removed from her last title, she was nevertheless a long shot in her return to Pattaya City. But after upsetting third seed Zarina Diyas in her opener, the 2012 champion in Thailand didn't look back again. After dropping the first set in Sunday's final to Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic, Dani's experience came through and she was able to power through for her seventh career title and first since 2013. She seems to have recovered well enough -- earlier today she won her first match in Dubai with a win over Mona Barthel in three long sets -- but she'll face an even bigger challenge from Simona Halep in the next round. But a strong performance could work wonders for her confidence -- back in the top fifty now there's no reason she can't make another move higher.

We may have a few weeks left before then next big events of the season get underway, but all of this weekend's champions have put themselves back on the radar as we head to the American hard court season. And now that they've shown they've still got some spunk left in them, there's no telling what they'll be able to do.

No comments: